My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dana Spiotta has been reading my mail and walking through my memories and dreams. Which is fine, really. She is most welcome.
Not since Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad has an author captured so much of what drew me and my crew to certain types of music when I was a kid. Three decades on, I’ve begun to realize I may never again feel such unfettered passion as when I first unsleeved my favorite tunes, but Stone Arabia comes tantalizingly close to revivifying some heady emotions. At times I could smell Aqua Net while I was reading.
Upon finishing Stone Arabia – at 2 AM or so, because I could not put it down – I felt new life coursing through old friends and bandmates, most of whom, like me, did not get the brass ring. Some are dead, some simply broken, but a precious few, like Stone Arabia‘s rock and roll hermit genius Nik Kranis (AKA Nik Worth) remain creative in the face of dashed hopes and dreams deferred. These are my people.
49-year-old Nik, who hasn’t played a gig since 1979, is several cuts above in terms of his obsessive devotion; he makes music, yes, but he also creates an alternate universe in which he is a star. Nik’s arc is wildly impressive, and not only includes many self-recorded/designed/released albums, but also reviews and interviews by journalists of Nik’s own invention. One reviewer, in fact, loathes the work, and the pith and tone of the ersatz music journalism is, at times, hilarious. Nik even concocts an old-school fanzine and interviews himself. Yet, brilliant as he is, anti-digital Nik allows a scant few folks to actually hear his music and leaf through the cut-and-paste scrapbooks he calls his Chronicles. Among them is his devoted little sister, 47-year-old single mom Denise, who narrates Stone Arabia.
Denise is as much a piece of work as Nik, and although the novel takes brief excursions into third person, we mostly experience Stone Arabia in Denise’s head. The tone is both conversational and epistolary, with lengthy philosophical excusions bumping against brief emails, blog entries, and transcripts from Denise’s 22-year-old daughter Ada’s documentary about Nik.
As much as I latched on to Nik, the meat of the story is Denise’s personal struggles, of which her increasingly remote, alcoholic brother is but one. Spiotta renders these trials with familiar ache, but also refreshing sucker-punch humor. Denise struggles with credit card debt (exacerbated by frequent loans to Nik) perimenopause, and an addiction to the 24-hour-news cycle. Plus, Nik and Denise’s mom has Alzheimer’s (deadbeat dad is long dead) and Denise herself is beginning to feel her own memory cracking beneath the weight of her years. Yet her recollections of both her and Nik’s childhood, and then formative episodes as latchkey kids in glittery-then-punky Los Angeles, are vividly cinematic; the Kranis kids walk out of a screening of A Hard Day’s Night and share amazement that the world is unchanged; teenage Denise obsesses over fey boys; at a disastrous pool party, young single mom Denise realizes, with horror, that she has gone from carefree to careless.
The rock & roll stuff is great, but Spiotta’s multi-leveled depiction of a modern, albeit eccentric family is really the heart of the book. And it’s a big, beating thing, that heart. We ride the emotional tides of daughters, siblings, girlfriends, parents; but through the disappointment, rage, anxiety, and irritation shines an abiding, treacle-free love. Spiotta reminds us that memories fade, people change, plans don’t pan out, dreams die, fuck-ups accrue, but we all hope for love through it all. We hope to give it and receive it. Stone Arabia spins that love around, surface noise and all.